For breakfast he gave me tea and sausages. One per meal. I stirred the sausage in a pool of pale mustard as the old man puttered about the kitchen in an old tattered apron. After dinner the old man would make loud bomb noises and machine gun blasts and other terrible sounds. His arms formed great arcs that concluded in ever greater explosions. He would point to the ceiling and say: Kaboom!
Where is the old woman? I wondered.
One evening I said goodbye to the old man to go to the opera. Opera? he said. I will come with you. My daughter is in the opera. I believe that's what he said. We rode the number nine bus. We really whooped it up at the opera. Lots of whooping, colorful dancing, music. Ah, the opera! the old man said afterwards, waiting in the dark for the number nine to take us home to drink more vodka.
We visited the old woman in the hospital. We sat in the hospital grounds on a bird-stained bench under the beeches--she in her shabby striped robe and crooked wig. It seemed they were old friends. Like the old man, she was beginning to have second thoughts about me. Maybe I wasn't such a hot idea after all. I listened closely, imagining their conversation:
Let's ditch him.
He's not so bad, the old man replied. Bless his heart. You get used to him.
I don't like the looks of him.
He's okay, the old man said. Trust me.
One morning I awoke to find the old man gone. I discovered the old woman in the kitchen in the tattered apron. She set me down before a plate of sledz*. She said her name was Jadwiga and that I should behave myself.
Coming home I'd find myself locked out of the flat for hours at a time. I stood on the doorstep, rapping on the padded door, anxiously chewing my ruined nails, reviewing my options and finding few. As darkness fell the old woman would call out from behind the locked door, Who's there? What do you want? and then the door would open and everything would be all right again.
Once my father called.
How're you doing? he said. Getting along all right? Need any money? Are you taking care of yourself?
Da, I said, stifling a sob.
He . . . the old man is gone.
The old woman hissed in my ear, You're tying up the line, dummy.
Who's that? my father said. Who?
The line went dead.
I had a small radio and late at night I would lie beneath the covers and listen for familiar voices. I grew gaunt till my trousers fell from my body.
The old woman made me a present of slippers. I wasn't sure what to say.
The last few days of summer drifted over the city like dark clouds of exhaustion. My clothes hung loose and damp.
When it came time to leave she asked for her slippers back. Reluctantly I handed them over. She put them in the slipper cabinet next to the others and I thanked her. I closed my eyes, made to kiss her cheek. She reluctantly shifted her short stocky frame inward and there we remained till the spell was broken by time. Then I shouldered my bag and like a freak insect scuttled out the door. Behind me came the thick slam of a padded door followed by the click of a dozen deadbolts slid securely into place.
I was going to live in the suburbs.
Potentially, might be ...
Potentially, might be ...